The Barna Group posted an article on its website in May of this year which discusses the ambiguity among churchgoers and church leaders of what it means to be spiritually mature.  It would certainly be worth a look at the article as a whole before interacting with the below quote.  However, I thought I would share the quote below, which strikes at the challenge pastors have in defining what it means to be spiritually mature. 

"The research among pastors highlighted several inter-related challenges. First, while nearly nine out of 10 pastors said that a lack of spiritual maturity is the most significant or one of the largest problems facing the nation, a minority of pastors believe that spiritual immaturity is a problem in their church. A second challenge is that only a minority of churches has a written statement expressing the outcomes they are looking for in spiritually mature people. A third challenge is that pastors often favor activities over perspectives in their definitions of spiritual maturity. Their metrics for people’s spirituality include the practice of spiritual disciplines (19%), involvement in church activities (15%), witnessing to others (15%), having a relationship with Jesus (14%), having concern for others (14%), applying the Bible to life (12%), being willing to grow spiritually (12%), and having knowledge of Scripture (9%)."

First, we may want to begin by asking some critical questions related to the survey itself.  Of course, we do not know exactly how it was conducted, but it is worth giving some thought to the accuracy of the data given above.  It is also worth discussing what we think about some of the assumptions made by the above quote.  For example, that a "written statement expressing the outcome they are looking for in spiritually mature people" is central, important and telling.  

Second, what do we think about the above results if we do feel that they are fairly accurate.  Is there naivety on the part of pastors in thinking their congregations are spiritually mature?  Is there wishful thinking in this?  Is there a fear in admitting perhaps that they have not lead or guided their "flock" well?  Or, do we agree, that in fact these pastors are probably discerning the state of their congregation well?

Third, do we find the answers to what it means to be spiritually mature good, bad, etc.?  Of course, we don’t know what is meant by spiritual disciplines and since it would seem that "involvement in church activities" could fit into that category (depending on how it is defined) some of these distinctions may not be totally helpful.  However, it is fairly concerning that many pastors may struggle to answer this and in fact may answer in some ways that are not helpful, thoughtful, etc.?  I have noticed in my time in ministry and even interacting with other pastors that answering the questions, "what does it mean to grow spiritually" and "what does it mean to be spiritually mature" can be a challenge.  These questions are often met with ad-hoc responses or responses even born out of specific deficits they perceive to be present within their congregation (for example, their congregation may not focus on service as much as they would like and this results in defining spiritual maturity by service).  Sometimes their answers are perhaps even born out of the guilt they feel about their own spiritual maturity.

What do you all think?  How would you define spiritual maturity?


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5 Responses to Defining Spiritual Maturity

  1. giuseppe says:

    I don’t think there’s a set age, really. I think it has more to do with the miurtaty of the child, as you mentioned, the traffic (both cars and people) of the streets, and how well you know the people in the areas too. I got some flack about letting *a* walk to a neighbor’s house, but I quickly point out that we live in a small neighborhood, on a block that’s all dead end streets, gets no traffic other than people who live here that know the kids play out here, and I know all the houses she’d pass. My rule for her is, if I can’t see/hear her from the porch, she can’t walk there alone, and must be left in care of an adult. However, she’s only 6, and a socially immature 6 at that. I think it comes down to a gut feeling, really, and how well you’ve prepared your kiddo for the trek. ~K

  2. MikeV says:

    We love to measure things, don’t we? The number of people who come to church each Sunday. The number of baptisms per month. The amount of money coming in each week. The number of small groups in the church. It is a way to apply a business model to the church and determine if the church is successful or not. And if the numbers are down in a certain area, that calls for a series on Financial Stewardship or Why Small Groups are Important.

    I am not into the business of church. I have no interest in it. And I truly believe that when we measure spiritual maturity in these ways, we are totally missing the point. Spiritual maturity then becomes just a list of things to do (practice disciplines, read the Bible, evangelize …). It works well for the driven Type-A personality who manages to do all that stuff and “appears to be” a spiritual superstar but whose heart remains unchanged and their doing only reinforces issues of needing to be the best and impress others.

    Spiritual maturity is about a changed heart. It is about loving God and loving others better than you have before. If you need to measure it, ask questions such as: are you more patient than you were last year, are you more kind, do you care more for the poor and oppressed? These are the true fruits of a spiritally mature life.

  3. Matthew R Green says:

    Two toughts come to mind as I read this.  One, I’m not sure it really is simple to define spiritual maturity.  I think it’s something that involves aspects of parts of the self that are beyond comprehension or our ability to directly deal with, and that makes things tricky not only to engage and bring about but even to describe or define.  This being the case, perhaps ad hoc descriptions or prescriptions are problematic or should always be followed up by the caveat that the issue is larger than a short statement can warrant and an offering of a larger discussion.

    Second, I don’t think the church generally makes much of an attempt to describe or define them, particularly in the very schools that are teaching our church leadership.  How are pastors supposed to lead their congregations in the direction of spiritual maturity if they haven’t been taught what it means or how to go about it either?

    Now, bearing in mind what I just said in point #1, if I absolutely had to give a definition of spiritual maturity, of the top of my head I’d say
    Living in congruence with one’s nature, and therefore design, and in loving relationship with God, self, and others.
    Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaand that needs a whole heck of a lot of clarification, elaboration, and potentially further discussion.  Which is part of why this blog exists, no?

  4. Rob Loane says:

    This discussion reminds me of Jerry Bridges’ words when he was talking to a group of college students in a residence hall several years back. After his talk was over one student yelled out, "How do we know if we are actually growing up spiritually?" The student elaborated on how hard it had become for him to have any clear sense of what God was doing generally in the world or particularly in his life. As the student spoke you could sense his despair and confusion. This was not an abstract question he was asking. Bridges responded initially by saying that measuring progress in the spiritual life is a difficult and tricky endeavor. He discouraged any sure-fire, across the board standard of measuring spiritual maturity. We can be so easily self-deceived. He proceeded to tell the group if he had to offer a way of judging or evaluating our growth it would not be based on our confidence in managing sin or any felt sense of "having arrived" in one’s relationship with God. Bridges then looked at the student and asked, "How can you know if you are growing spiritually? The most reliable way I know is this: Are you growing in an awareness of your need for God?" He then proceeded to explain that it is our weakness–our sense of waywardness and need for God–that drives us throughout lives to discover and depend on God’s abundant grace and work in the world. This interaction has stuck with me over the years. This is a bit more experiential and doesn’t actually define maturity, but if Bridges is onto something, and I think he is, then it does expose the difficulties that we face in measuring progress in the spiritual life.

  5. BillOByrne3 says:

    I was “drawn into this conversation” by the appearance of Tom Ashbrook’s article on Teresa of Avila and her paradigm for spiritual growth (or “maturity”). Tom and I serve together in a covenant community of spiritual formation ministry called Imago Christi.

    One observation that I’ve found helpful in the definition of “spiritual maturity” is to compare it to other discussions of maturity. When we say someone is “mature,” we usually mean that she is “mature enough to do something responsibly and wisely,” whether it’s to drive, vote, marry, drink alcohol, manage an inheritance, advise others, etc. It’s often a marker, an indication of an experiential threshold that a person has passed that others can recognize and that shows that he is capable or qualified to either carry a certain responsibility or advise others on how to carry it. Maturity is not an end point, it is a continuing journey past a certain threshold, which in spiritual terms usually means that all aspects of the Christian life are present and in working, but also in learning and growing order.

    This distinction helps in unpacking Paul’s use of the term in 1Cor 2:3; Phil 3:15 and Heb 5:14 – yes, I’ve taken the leap, and think it’s Paul’s, but that’s another topic). But using Paul’s adjective ‘teleios’ (perfect) to describe any Christian today sets off legalistic and authoritarian warning bells in contemporary culture. Paul refers in those passages NOT to believers who have attained a sinless perfection, BUT to those who are trained and disciplined “enough” to discern good and evil, truth and error (Heb 5:11-6:3), to those who are wise “enough” to discern the Spirit and mind of Christ and are humble “enough” to follow their calling and not follow their following (1Cor 2-3), and to those motivated by a passionate and self-abandoned pursuit of knowing Christ more fully and intimately (Phil 3).

    Generally, there are two dangers in defining “spiritual maturity,” the first is defining it so nebulously that it doesn’t challenge everyone who reads it, or secondly setting the standard so high that few are motivated to try. Much of our spiritual journey consists in bouncing off of these “guard rails,” sometimes grinding along one or the other, or even falling into one ditch or the other a few times before learning to stay on the road. Jerry Bridge’s comment to the student about “acknowledging our weakness” helped him stay out of the “I’m not perfect, so why bother” ditch. But Paul’s positive desire to “more fully embrace Christ’s transforming embrace of me” produces maturity (Phil 3:12 my paraphrase), when maturity as such is not the goal, but the love and service of Christ.

    This is where we get to Teresa of Avila. Her description of the “Interior Castle”, or the spiritual journey from beginning to end through the “Mansions of the Heart” (Tom’s book) provides a clear road map of the path of spiritual maturing (I prefer the “participle in process”). She defines the important thresholds, junctures and dead-ends, along with the guardrails and ditches in each phase that we each journey through in our own way and by the grace of God.

    So rather with Paul and Teresa I would define maturity in a way that dispels the perfection myth and yet inspires the process. A “spiritually mature and maturing” person is consistently pursuing the love and service of God in Christ through the Spirit with her mind, soul and spirit in each aspect of life, possessing “enough” wisdom to discern the Spirit, His truth, and calling, and “enough” humility to accept her limitations, obey her calling, and engage her continued need for growth.

    The companion to “The Cloud of Unknowing,” blandly called “The Book of Privy Counseling” refers to two evidences of the call to a contemplative life, which are also good indicators of “mature spiritual maturing.” Both have to do with “desire” and “longing.” The first is “The interior sign is that growing desire for contemplation constantly intruding in your daily devotions” – when you think about God you can’t love Him or serve Him enough. “The second sign is exterior and it manifests itself as a certain joyful enthusiasm welling up within you, whenever you hear or read about contemplation.” If any mention of God, Christ or spiritual things persists after the external reading or conversation, “constantly intruding in all you do, enkindling and capturing your desire,” then these confirm “God’s call to a more intense life of grace” (from ch. 18).

    Perhaps a spiritually maturing person is mature “enough” that others recognize their ability to nurture and advise others, who are not be able to get “enough” of loving and serving God, and for whom God is becoming “enough.”

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